Tuesday, 18 December 2012

A Christmas Memory

I was a precocious child.  I have before me The Christmas Reader edited by Godfrey Smith, the paperback version published by Penguin Books in 1986.  On the flyleaf I see the following inscription, written in a bold, clear hand – “To mama from Anastasia, Christmas 1986.”  How could I not be precocious?  I was all of six months old!

This collection, at over three hundred pages, is an absolute delight, a treasure chest full of golden literary nuggets - poems, short stories, anecdotes, diary entries, extracts from novels, songs, recipes and menus, all on the common theme of Christmas. 

Smith, formerly a columnist with the Sunday Times, was asked for help by one John Simmons.  Mister Simmons, who belonged to a supper club, had read an extract from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol the previous December.  What could he read them this year, he asked the journalist, that was any near as good?  Smith duly put the question to his readers.  The answers came cascading as from a horn of plenty.  In the end, as he puts it in the anthology’s introduction, there was enough to keep the supper club entertained until the middle of the present century!

I first read my gift to mother when I was about twelve.  I’ve been reading it on and off ever since, always at this time of year, of course, as the days get shorter and Christmas draws near.  There are so many gems that I simply can’t possibly mention them all in a manageable blog article.  There were discoveries that took me, like an explorer, on different journeys.  It was in these pages that I came across American writers like Willa Cather, Truman Capote, O Henry and Damon Runyon for the very first time. 

Runyon is represented, guys and dolls, by Dancing Dan’s Christmas, an amusing tale set in Prohibition days and written in his own incomparable style.  Truman is also represented by a short story, the wonderfully poignant A Christmas Memory, a tale of an unusual friendship between a child and an elderly woman who thought like a child.  It moved me when I first read it; it moves me still, the pair of lost kites, rather like hearts, moving towards heaven.

In the same section – Now One Time it Comes on Christmas…- there is a piece by Alistair Cooke, a journalist based in the States who used to broadcast on life there to people in England.  It’s called Christmas in Vermont, not a short story but an account of the holiday he spent in 1976 with his daughter and her family, who live in a remote farm in the north of the State.  The prose is wonderful, limpid and shining.  Even more wonderful is his description of a Christmas feast where nothing, not even the wine, was ‘store boughten’, as they say in New England.  He concludes by writing of his grandson;

And here, at four, he’s skiing over the deep and crisp and even like a Disney doll.  And this is all the life that Adam knows.  One day he will grow up and, I’m afraid, taste of the forbidden fruit.  One day he will read the New York Times.  And Adam will be out of the Garden of Eden, out of Vermont, for ever. 

Do you heard of John Betjeman?  If not he was once the English Poet Laureate.  His poetry is neither clever nor sophisticated.  Rather it’s full of dry humour and simple sincerity, which made him all the more popular with people who normally take very little interest in poetry.  He is represented in this collection by a poem simply called Christmas.  The last three verses will give you something of the flavour;

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

It really does not matter if you believe or not.  The words are uplifiting enough.

There are other verses including the much-parodied Christmas Day in the Workhouse, parodied in such immortal lines as “Then up spoke one old pauper/With a face as bold as brass/We don’t want your Christmas pudding/You can stick it up….”  I don’t think I need continue, do I?  The original, though now laughable in its dripping melodrama, is evidence of just how dreaded this much-despised Victorian institution once was. 

In his introduction Smith touches on the criticisms of modern Christmases.  I’m sure you know the sort of thing - they are too commercial, too corrupted, too trivialised.  It was all so much better in the past.  But that’s just the point – Christmas is all about the past, all about nostalgia.  It brings a longing for things that have been, things that have passed, and things that never were.  Hilaire Belloc’s A Remaining Christmas, written in the 1920s, calls for Christmas Past.  Then we have Washington Irving’s The Christmas Dinner, written a century before, where the old English squire regrets the passing of traditions two centuries before that! 

There are some seriously funny pieces.  Here I give special mention to John Julius Norwich’s spin on The Twelve Days of Christmas, the traditional carol detailing a succession of increasingly unusual gifts sent by a true love to a true love.  By the end the true love remains true no longer.  In the form of a series of letters from the recipient, it’s better to hear it read aloud with the right pacing, but it’s still very funny on paper.  Here, for example, is letter five, received after the five gold rings:

Dearest Edward,
The postman has just delivered five most beautiful gold rings, one for each finger, and all fitting perfectly.  A really lovely present – lovelier in a way than birds, which do take rather a lot of looking after.  The four that arrived yesterday are still making a terrible row, and I’m afraid that none of us got much sleep last night.  Mummy says she wants to ‘wring’ their necks – she’s only joking, I think; though I know what she means.  But I love the rings.  Bless you.
Love, Emily.

She does not love what comes in the days after.  In the end the whole lot, the birds, the lords a-leaping, the ladies dancing, the pipers piping, the drummers drumming, the maids a-milking are sent back by a firm of solicitors, Messrs Sue, Grabbit and Run, who inform the true love that his true love has taken out an injunction against him! 

I could go on and on.  There is A Child in the Forest, an extract from Winifred Foley’s beautiful and poignant memoir, or the unbelievably sumptous Christmas Dinner at Mount Vernon, the menu George and Martha Washington placed before guests at their Virginia home.   But not wishing to try your patience any longer I must stop.  Let me just say that there is so much more, delights of all kinds.  This, as Mister Pickwick said, is indeed comfort. 


  1. Precocious, indeed. And that was long before it was simple to order books online.

    1. I seem to remember popping down to Foyles. :-)

  2. Betjeman can sometimes be clever as well as sophisticated but he is never obscure or difficult, that is what makes him so loved as a poet. Some of his poetry could be unpopular outside of the UK due to the abundance of place names and brand names.

    1. Yes. He is for me the quintessentially English poet.